We’ve read lately that Americans are driving less than ever. Apparently, this cannot be explained simply by economics, but still: driving is expensive! AAA exhaustively details the costs of driving in this pdf. TL;DR: when you take into account gas, maintenance, financing, insurance, and registration, even a small sedan driven 20,000 miles a year (it gets cheaper the more you drive) costs $0.398/mile to operate. Does that seem maybe like not so much? Consider this: my old commute from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to midtown Manhattan would have cost $6.76 (plus unimaginable aggravation, plus parking).
On the heels of Ester’s exploration of trust fund kids (my position: don’t trust ‘em), I came upon this rather wide-ranging indictment of elite colleges and the admissions process in the New Republic: in short, the author avers, the Ivies squelch creativity, channel thinking and energy into a narrow set of endeavors, reinforce privilege, and perpetuate the illusion of a meritocracy: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”
And the cause (aside from, you know, how rich people always set stuff up to benefit themselves)?
Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools.
Let me start by saying that safety is good, and it is sensible to spend money on it. The auto industry howled miserably about the terrible increase in manufacturing costs that would accompany mandatory seatbelts, but it was probably worth it, because seatbelts save a lot of lives. But the line between prudent precaution and baseless fear can be hard to see, and can lead us to expend effort and money on the prevention of remote risks.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an abundance of caution (except, you know, when there is), but it’s interesting to consider the sensible and not-so-sensible ways we spend money. I doubt anyone ever went broke buying a Brita water filter in New York City, but it is basically a waste of $25 in a city with some of the finest tap water in the country. And why spend an extra $100 to have a baby video monitor rather than an audio model? Have you ever watched a baby sleep? It is boring. (Besides, the audio version is perfectly adequate for sitting on your across-the-street neighbor’s stoop and having a margarita after your infant is in bed. Or so I’ve heard.)
And yet, we spend this money.
The joy of a given job often comes down not to the salary but the intangibles: coworkers, setting, commute, and the like. This is doubly so in our teenage years.
I have not had a land line for about eight years. My children, who are seven and 10, have no concept of a land line. To them, phones go with you. But apparently, if research by the fly-by-night outfit known as the Centers for Disease Control is to be believed, most people still have land lines—not as many as before, but still a majority. The only demographic group in which a majority of people have only cell phones is poor people.
This yields many interesting insights about poor people, but leaves me with a big question about not-poor people: why do they keep their land lines? I realize that land lines aren’t very expensive, and that not-poor people pay for a lot of things they don’t need, but why land lines?
I suppose, theoretically, that land lines are handy in a prolonged power outage, but really, is that how we’re living? Are we keeping our ham radios and pagers and switching over to gas stoves in anticipation of electrical grid failures?
Or is there something else wonderful about land lines that I’m missing? Go ahead, dear readers, sing me their praises.
Photo by the author.
What interesting lessons about personal finance and the economy can we take away from the fact that web sites like AirBnB and VRBO are upending the market for $1,000-a-night rentals in the Hamptons? Probably none. But it is marvelous to know that there is a therapist in East Hampton willing to report with a straight face that “one of her patients’ top anxieties these days [is] the explosion of short-term rentals.”
The rich really are different than you and me, aren’t they?
Photo by the author.
There is massive new Pew Research Center poll (185 glorious pdf pages) that dissects the attitudes of Americans on all sorts of things. There is much to mull over, starting with the study’s division of the American populace into eight ideological groups: Solid Liberals (all left all the time; like me, more or less), Steadfast Conservatives (fiscally and socially conservative), Business Conservatives (corporatist, but not so down on gays and immigrants), Young Outsiders (socially liberal Republicans), Hard-Pressed Skeptics (left-leaning, working class, disillusioned), Next-Generation Liberals (like the Solid Liberals, but unconvinced of the need for social programs or anti-discrimination legislation), Faith and Family Left (like the Solid Liberals, but homophobic), and (boringly) Bystanders, who are what they sound like: disengaged and uninformed.
These groups break down mostly as you’d expect (although the right is more polarized than the left). The study is full of charts that show the spread of each group’s opinions across some typical left-right divide, and they all pretty much look like this one:
My children are seven and 10 years old, and in teaching them to navigate the world, I find myself swimming against a great tide of distrust in the world. Despite data to the contrary, the prevailing notion among the middle class parents I meet through my kids’ suburban school is that children today simply cannot do the things that we did as children because there are too many lurking perils, principally in the form of bad people who will do bad things if given half a chance. I try to counter this notion, urging my boys to go outside, to explore the blocks surrounding our building, to make the world their own. Of course they know not to get into a stranger’s car, but I think they also know that most strangers are just people like us, people with kids of their own and jobs and places to go. Even when we talk about the people I represent in court (children charged with crimes and adults accused of abusing their children), I try to put bad deeds in the context of complex circumstances: “People are generally good,” I always tell them.
But then this: the 10-year-old is playing some seemingly innocuous game on the iPad when he asks, “Dad, what’s your email address?”
I start to tell him, then hesitate. “Why?”
“It says that if I sign up to get some emails, I can get free points in this game and…”
“Forget it,” I say. “It’s a scam.”
“What do you mean, a scam? They just want to send emails! And it’s the only way to advance to the next level!”
Of course. He thinks people are generally good. What could be the harm in sharing my email address with the folks who already proved how thoughtful they were by providing us with a FREE IPAD GAME?
So that is the dilemma: In everyday interactions, most people are good and kind. But when they organize themselves into corporations, most people are trying to get over EVERY TIME.
People in the creative fields perennially suffer requests to do for free what they usually do for pay. This phenomenon is not unremarked-upon, and not particularly surprising in an economy where all sorts of labor is put out to bid in a way that encourages workers to undercut one another.
A general rule in our handbook for getting by in the freelance economy should definitely be DON’T WORK FOR FREE. Remember, the whole point of the freelance economy is that it delivers labor to to employers more cheaply because there is an endless supply of strugglers waiting to work for nothing more than the promise of exposure or future paid work.
But are there exceptions to that general rule? Of course there are exceptions. Jessica Hische has created a handy flowchart at the appropriately named shouldiworkforfree.com to help you through the decision, but based on personal experience, I would posit an even simpler set of rules. First, put aside any work where you are hoping for exposure or future paid work. That’s a fool’s game. All remaining free work will fall into one of two categories: